Annie Fan reviews Some Girls Walk Into the Country They Are From by Sawako Nakayasu, Wave Books, 2020.
This past year has been insular, defined by the smallness of our spaces, our distances from the familiar. Nakayasu’s Some Girls Walk Into the Country They Are From charts these strange distances between the countries and civilisations we think we know, and the true experience of inhabiting them; the difference between knowing the identifier ‘girl’ and knowing how it feels to be one; the struggle to place that difference into any language. Nakayasu’s girls are trapped by their experiences of turning into soup and being consumed by themselves; they spend years nursing children and waiting for ‘the impending storm’; they are pushed through translations upon translations until they are unrecognisable to themselves. The girls are both distinct and echoes of each other, the writer is both distinct and another echo in the book. One of the most beautiful pairings in the book is of the two poems on ‘Girl D and Her Phosphorus Eyes’, which transforms the way ‘most people die’ into a barrier for love, seeing the translators as ‘kindred sisters on opposite sides of this giant landmass’. We are reminded of the distance between the creative subject and Nakayasu, and how that distance begets its own distance to others.
In some ways, to be a girl is to be a ghost, to already be disappearing. Nakayasu’s girls are only known by their lettering, and most fail to even name themselves in ‘Girl Names’; they make ‘vomit balls’ and other weapons, they weaponize their desire and sleep with each other. But they can’t escape anything, even their ‘former self’. It’s not always clear who is at the forefront of each poem – Nakayasu or her ghostly retinue – but it doesn’t need to be. The collection is so expansive, so exuberant in its description of hundreds of possible lives that it feels like a history of a civilisation and a mythology of the self.
There is strangeness in the authenticity and authenticity in the strangeness. Being stuck in a Cheeto bag may seem absurd, but the ritualised purging and reconstituting all speak to bodily shame that so many girls and girl-adjacent people feel. The hidden intimacy of the ‘tiny little sun…not up in the head’ is how so many girls who love other girls ‘protect themselves from being / discovered and potentially harmed’. The forceful translations, which transform one poem into another poem in the collection, show the complexity of colonialism in East Asia, often brushed away upon arrival into an English that dominates over everything – an English that asks ‘where are you from?’
So, to disappear is not really to fade into insignificance, but rather to survive. Girlhood is something to be survived, as the final poem ‘Lake’ tells us, so that we can ‘fish out the meaty lies | from between the layers of water’; so that we might become a collective of girls as in ‘Girl Soup’, or a collective of one as Girl B’s movement into using they/them pronouns shows. Only when we can cast off girlhood and its myths as a rain of ‘orange petals’ can there be any understanding of the narrow, choking idea of ‘girl’ and ‘country’ that feel unnatural; and only then can we dismantle the familiar itself.
– Annie Fan
Annie Fan is a writer, and a final-year law student at the University of Oxford. Their poems and short stories have appeared in PN Review, The London Magazine, and The Offing, among others.